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||Jean Cocteau (1889-1963)|
French artist and writer, who made his name widely known in poetry, fiction, film, ballet, painting, and opera. Jean Cocteau's works reflect the influence of surrealism, psychoanalysis, cubism, Catholic Religion; occasionally they were opium influenced. In his time Cocteau was a promoter of avant-garde styles and fashions. His friends included such prominent figures as Pablo Picasso, the composer Erik Satie, the writer Marcel Proust, and the Russian director Serge Diaghilev.
Jean Cocteau was born in Maisons-Lafitte into a wealthy Parisian family, which also was politically prominent. His father, Georges, was a lawyer and amateur painter, who committed suicide when Cocteau was nine. However, he had a lasting influence on his son. It is said that this tragic event also created Cocteau's awareness of human weakness, which he compensated by putting himself in the service of the performing arts and the mysterious forces in the universe. Poetry was for Cocteau the basis of all art, a "religion without hope".
At the age of fifteen, Cocteau left home. He was in the secondary school only a mediocre student, and unsuccessful after repeated attempts to pass the graduation examination. At the age of 19, Cocteau published huis first volume of poems, Aladdin's Lamp. Soon he became known in the bohemian artistic circles as 'The Frivolous Prince' - the title of a volume of poems he had published at twenty-one. The American writer Edith Wharton described him as a man, "to whom every great line of poetry was a sunrise, every sunset the foundation of the Heavenly City..." (A Backward Glance: An Autobiography by Edith Wharton, introduction by Louis Auchincloss, 1998, p. 285) In his early twenties Coctreau became associated with Proust, Gide, and Maurice Barrès. He was also a close friend of Victor Hugo's great-grandson, Jean.
In 1915 Cocteau met Picasso and fell under his spell. "I
admired his intelligence, and clung to everything he said, for he spoke
little; I kept still so as not to miss a word. There were long silences
and Varèse could not understand why we stared wordlessly at each other.
In talking, Picasso used a visual syntax, and you could immediately see
what he was saying. He liked formulas and summoned himself up
in his statements as he summoned himself up and sculptured himself in
objects that he immediately made tangible." (Pablo
Picasso: His Life and Times by Pierre Cabanne, 1977, p. 176) Cocteau and the
poet Apollinaire were witnesses at Picasso's wedding to Olga. They held
gold crowns over the heads of the bride and groom as they circles three
times round the altar at the Russian Orthodox church in the rue Daru.
Cocteau's friendship with Picasso continued even after the artist
remarked in an interview: "He is not a poet. Rimbaud is the only one. Jean is only a
journalist." Picasso: Creator and Destroyer by Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, 1989, p. 186) Moreover, Picasso also used to say, "I am the comet; Cocteau is but a spark in my tail." (Jean Cocteau: A Life by Claude Arnaud, 2016, p. 444)
The Russian ballet-master Sergei Diaghilev challenged Cocteau
to write for the ballet - "Surprise me," he
urged. This resulted Parade
(1917), produced by Diaghilev,
designed by Pablo Picasso, and composed by Erik Satie. Apollinaire
program notes, inventing the
word "surrealism" in the process. Thanks to
Cocteau, the genius of Satie, who earned
living by night playing piano in Parisian clubs and cabarets, was
acknowledged. The ballet
premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on May 18, 1917, when the
war was still going on in the WWI trenches. Satie's music included the
rattle of typewriters, which sounded like machine guns.
Many audience members hissed at this
symbolic beginning of modern art. "If it had not been for Apollinaire
in uniform," wrote Cocteau exaggerating, "with his skull shaved, the
scar on his temple and the bandage around his head, women would have
gouged our eyes out with hairpins." (Picasso: Creator and Destroyer by Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, 1989, p. 152)
Satie and Picasso realized that they
had more in common with each other than with Cocteau, who at that time
was a conservative by though and a rebel in art. "Picasso has ideas
that I like better than our Jean's," confessed Satie. "How awful!" (Picasso: Creator and Destroyer by Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, 1989, p. 145) Satie and Picasso worked
together in the short ballet Les
Aventures de Mercure
(1924) without the intervention of Cocteau. Its subject was aimed at
their friend, who was fascinated by this mythological figure and liked
to dress himself in a Mercury outfit– winged helmet, winged shoes,
silver tights – whenever fancy dress was called for.
Le Potomak (1919), which established Cocteau's reputation as a writer, was a prose fantasy centering around a creature, who lives caged in an aquarium. The theme of the poet's ability to see clearly into the world of the dead was a central theme is Cocteau's early poems, such as in 'L'ange Heurtebise' (1925). Cocteau's first major work of criticism, Le Rappel à l'ordre, came out in 1926. His adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone was performed in 1922 with scenery by Picasso and music by Paul Honegger. However, Coco Chanel stole many headlines with the costumes she made for the play.
During World War I Cocteau served as an ambulance driver on
the Belgian front. His poems from this period, Le Cap de
Bonne-Espérance (1919), established him among the first rank of
young poets. Soon after the war he met the future poet and novelist Raymond Radiguet,
whose early death of typhoid
fever was a hard blow to him. To relieve his grief, Cocteau
rented a room (number 6) from the Hôtel Napoleon (a.k.a. Hôtel
Saint-Germain-des-Prés) where he held small gatherings and smoked
opium. After he moved out, the American novelist occupied the room and
wrote there much of her fictionalized autobiography, We Lived as Children. Cocteau's
Parisian residence was at 10 Rue d'Anjou, but usually he worked in a
nearby hotel. Madame de Chivgny (Madame de Guermantes in Marces
Proust's Remembrance of Things Past)
live one flight below Cocteau. Colette, who was his neigbour at the
Palais-Royal in the 1940s, influenced his interest in cats. He had many
feline companions, of whom Karoun had a special place in his heart.
Cocteau called him the "King of Cats" and dedicated Drôle de Ménage (1948) to his pet.
With Thomas the Impostor (1923) Cocteau turned to the
psychological novel. The masterpiece Les Enfants terribles
(1929), written in three weeks, was about four children who are trapped
in their own frightening world. In 1929 Cocteau was hospitalized for
opium poison. Opium (1930) was an account of his addiction.
In 1926 Coctau designated the set for the opera Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy. He also collaborated with Stravinsky on Oedipus-Rex, an opera-oratoria. Orphée (1926), an original, one-act tragedy, was performed in Paris by Georges and Ludmilla Pitoëff. La Voix humaine (1930) was an one-character play consisting of a telephone conversation. The famous sketch Le Bel Indifférent (1940), about an older woman and her younger, indifferent lover, was originally written for Edith Piaf.
Cocteau's first feature film, The Blood of a Poet, was based on his own private mythology. Typical for his films is the use of a mirror as a door into another world. For Cocteau, reality was mystery. In The Blood of a Poet Enrique Rivero crashes through the surface of a large mirror. "Try, always try," his muse, Lee Miller, says. The hostility of the surrealists led Cocteau to abandon the avant-garde for something closer to classicism. His greatest play, The Infernal Machine, written before WW II, presented Oedipus as a marionette in the hands of gods. The work was based on Oedipus Rex by the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles.
As the result of a bet with the newspaper Paris-Soir,
Cocteau completed the itinery imagined by Jules Verne in Around the
World in Eighty Days, depicting his travels in My First Voyage
(1936). Cocteau played the role of Phileas Fogg, his Passepartout was
the young Algerian Marcel Khill, his lover and part-time secretary.
Their adventure became an exploration of a world no one else has ever
seen. In Egypt, the Great Sphinx grows smaller and smaller the closer
they get; eventually it eats out of their hand. Bombay reeks like a
charnel-house, the women are mere beasts of burden. In Hollywood,
Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper seem to move in an atmosphere of
On the voyage from Hawaii to the Far East, Cocteau met Charles
Chaplin aboard the President Coolidge;
it led to a fleeting friendship, although they had little in common.
comedy Modern Times had just
premiered in New York, revealed that his dream was to make a picture of
the Crucifixation. While it is true that they both were on the same
cargo ship, in his autobiography Chaplin tells that he
made often futile attempts
to avoid Cocteau, whose male companion Marcel tried to bridge the
French-English language gap.
Cocteau's close friendship with young Jean
Marais started in 1937,
when Marais played the role in the play Knights of the Round Table.
From this production, he designed leading roles especially for Marais.
Cocteau returned to filmmaking in the 1940s, producing Beauty
and the Beast (1946), Orphée (1950), and Le testament
in which he played himself on the screen. The film dealt with one of
Cocteau's favorite theme, the death, which
he often called his "mistress," but argued that in the film
"there is no Death and no angel. There can be none. Heurtebise is a
young Death serving in one of the numerous sub-orders of Death, and the
Princess is no more Death than an air hostess is an angel." ('Orpheus' by Jean Cocteau, in The Current, Essays, April 24, 2000)
In Orphée Cocteau connected the theme of death with the theme of inspiration. Jean Marais was a celebrated poet. He visits a café where receives the advice: "Astonish us." The Princess (Maria Casarès) tries to prevent a drunken young poet, Cégèste (Edouard Dhermite) from scattering his papers about. He is knocked over by two motor-cyclists. Orphée carries Cégèste to Princess's Rolls Royce. Her chauffeur, Heurtebise, phones the police. Cégèste dies. The Princess takes Orphée to a chalet, where she leads Cégèste through a mirror. At home Orphée's wife Eurydice discusses with the Commissioner of Police and Aglaonice (Juliette Gréco). During the nights the Princess appears in Orphée's room. The Princess leads Eurydice to the underworld. Heurtebise tells Orphée that there is a chance of reclaiming Eurydice. "Mirrors are the doors through which death comes and goes..." he says. Beyond the mirror – the Zone – he is allowed to reclaim Eurydice, but on the condition that he never looks at her again. The Princess and Orphée declare their undying love for each other. Aglaonice and her friends want to revenge the death of Cégèste and Orphée is killed. Again Heurtebise and Orphée return to The Zone. The Princess orders Cégèste and Heurtebise to "kill" the poet who awakes beside Eurydice. The Princess and Heurtebise must face their own punishment. "One might see the Princess as a black angel, a guardian devil, trying to prevent Orphée from a healthy domestic life with Eurydice. Or, if the film is an allegory about the poet and the poetry, the Princess is a false muse, a black goddess, a 'negative' of the white variety worshipped by Robert Graves." (Durgnat on Film by Raymond Durgnat, 1976, pp. 208-209)
Cocteau's mother, Eugénie Lecomte, died in 1943. During World
War II the Vichy government branded Cocteau as "decadent." However,
Cocteau praised in 1942 in a front-page article Arno
Breker, Hitler's favorite sculptor, a mistake which did not go
unnoticed. "Freud, Kafka, and Chaplin have been banned by the same
people who honor Breker," wrote Paul Éluard in a letter. "You were
believed to be among those forbidden. How wrong you have been to
suddenly show yourself among these censors!" (Jean Cocteau: A Life by Claude Arnaud, 2016, p. 663) The collaborationist press denounced him as a homosexual and German
police closed performances of his plays after riots. Cocteau
was never ostensibly interested in politics, he denounced the Vichy
government, and at the same time took no active part in the Resistance.
An investigation after the liberation in 1944 cleared Cocteau of
charges of collaboration, but many of his contempories maintained that
he had betrayed his country.
1949 Cocteau was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.
Cocteau's romantic play L'Aigle à deux têtes (1946), which took its theme from the murder of Empress Elizabeth of Austria, has been filmed twice. The first version from 1947 was directed by the author himself, starring Edwige Feuillére as the Queen, and Jean Marais as her lover and would-be assassin. A new version was made in 1980 by Michelangelo Antonioni under the title The Mystery of Oberwald. Antonioni was not especially fond of the original play, most of all he wanted to work with Monica Vitti, who was cast in the role of the Queen.
In 1949 Cocteau made a trip to the United States and a theatrical tour of the Middle East. He continued living an active life until 1953 when ill healt forced him into semiretirement. Cocteau still went on to astonish the public. He had his face lifted and he started to wear leather trousers and matador's capes. In 1955 he was elected to Belgian Academy and the Acadèmie Française - Picasso's design for the sword hilt of the Academician's traditional insignia was a drawing of a toilet seat, a flushing chain and a toilet-bowl brush. In his last decade Cocteau worked in a wide variety of graphic arts. At the age of 70 he painted frescos in the town hall of Menton and in the chapel of Saint-Pierre at Ville-franche-sur Mer. Cocteau's mural at Notre-Dame de France in London were finished in 1960. Unconventionally, we see the crucified figure in the middle only from knees down; the identity of the figure is open to speculations. At the foot of the cross is a rose, a Rose-Croix device. The artist himself is among characters in the foreground, but he has turned his back on the cross.
As his private life, Cocteau's Catholicism was highly unorthodox. He redecorated churches, and it has said that Cocteau was also the Grand Master of a secret brotherhood, the Priority of Sion, originally founded in Jerusalem in 1099. Cocteau appeared on the list of Sion's alleged Grand Masters as Jean XIII.
"To enclose the collected works of Cocteau one would need not a bookshelf, but a warehouse..." said W.H. Auden. Picasso declared once that Cocteau was so famous in Paris that all the chic coiffeurs had copies of his poems on their tables. (Bohemian Paris: Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, and the Birth of Modern Art by Dan Franck, 2001, p. 224) Cocteau died in Milly, outside Paris, on October 11, 1963. He was preparing a radio broadcast in memory of Edith Piaf and when he head she had expired, he exclaimed: "Ah, la Piaf est morte, je peux mourir", and sank into a coronary himself. Cocteaus's last film was his faithful adaptation of the novel from Madame de La Fayette, The Princess of Cleves. The American artist and film maker Andy Warhol, who perhaps felt a spiritual affinity with Cocteau, later developed the vision of him as an icon in a series of screenprints.